Putin went on national television to tell Russians that they must mobilize against terrorism and promised wide-ranging reforms to toughen security forces and purge corruption.
"We showed weakness, and weak people are beaten," he said.
Shocked relatives wandered among row after row of bodies lined up in black plastic or clear body bags on the pavement at a morgue in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, where the dead from the school standoff in Baslan were taken. In some open bags lay the contorted, thin bodies of children, some monstrously charred.
In Baslan, other relatives scoured lists of names to see if their loved ones had survived the chaos of the day before, when the standoff turned into violence, with militants setting off explosives in the school and commandos moving in to seize the building.
Workers cleaned up the gymnasium where the more than 1,000 hostages were held during the 62-hour ordeal. The gym of School No. 1 was reduced to a shell the roof destroyed, the windows shattered during Friday's fighting.
Regional Emergency Situations Minister Boris Dzgoyev said 323 people, including 156 children, were killed. More than 542 people including 336 children were hospitalized, medical officials said.
Dzgoyev also said 35 attackers heavily-armed and explosive-laden men and women who were reportedly demanding independence for Chechnya (news - web sites) were killed in 10 hours of battles that shook the area around the school with gunfire and explosions after 1 p.m. Friday. Earlier, a senior prosecutor had said there were only 26 militants and all were killed. The discrepancy could not immediately be explained.
Putin made a quick visit to the town before dawn Friday, meeting local officials and touring a hospital to speak with wounded. He stopped to stroke the head of one injured child.
But some in the region were unimpressed, as grief turned to anger, both at the militants and at the government response.
"Putin arrived and left in the middle of the night while everyone is sleeping, probably because he was afraid to talk with the people, to look them in the eyes," said Zalina Gutiyeva, 37, a pediatrician in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, a Russian Orthodox region set amid the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus.
It was still unclear how exactly the standoff fell apart into violence on Friday. Officials say security forces had not intended to storm the building but were forced to when hostage-takers set off explosives some however questioned that version.
The militants seized the school on the first day of classes on Wednesday, herding hundreds of children, parents who had been dropping their kids off, and other adults into the gymnasium, which the militants promptly wired with explosives including bombs hanging from the basketball hoops. The packed gym became sweltering, and the hostage-takers refused to allow in food or water.
One survivor, Sima Albegova, told the Kommersant newspaper she asked the militants, why the captives were taken. "Because you vote for your Putin," one of the militants told her, she said.
Another freed hostages said a militant told her, "The federal forces killed our children and you didn't help us. If Putin doesn't withdraw forces from Chechnya and doesn't free our arrested brothers, we'll blow everything up," according to the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper.
Russian officials said the bloodshed began when explosions were apparently set off by the militants possibly by accident as emergency workers entered the school courtyard to collect the bodies of hostages killed in the initial raid Wednesday.
Diana Gadzhinova, a 14-year-old hostage, was quoted as telling Izvestia that the militants had ordered the hostages to lie face down in the gymnasium as workers approached to collect the bodies.
"They told us that there were going to be talks," she said. Others also told stories of how the explosions sent the militants guarding them running in what appeared to be confusion and surprise to see what had happened.
Hostages fled during the explosions, and the militants opened fire on them. Security forces opened fire in return, and commandos moved in, officials said.
The explosions tore through the roof of the gymnasium, sending wreckage down on hostages, killing many. Many survivors emerged naked covered in ashes and soot, their feet bloody from jumping barefoot out of broken windows to escape.
During his visit to Beslan, Putin stressed that security officials had not planned to storm the school trying to fend off any potential criticism that the government side had provoked the bloodshed. He ordered the region's borders closed while officials searched for everyone connected with the attack.
"What happened was a terrorist act that was inhuman and unprecedented in its cruelty," Putin said in his televised speech later. "It is a challenge not to the president, the parliament and the government but a challenge to all of Russia, to all of our people. It is an attack on our nation."
Putin took a defiant tone, acknowledging Russia's weaknesses, but blaming it on the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign foes seeking to tear apart Russia and on corrupt officials. He said Russians could no longer live "carefree" and must all confront terrorism.
He called for Russians to mobilize against what he said was the "common danger" of terrorism. Measures would be taken, Putin promised, to overhaul the law enforcement organs, which he acknowledged had been infected by corruption, and tighten borders.
"We are obliged to create a much more effective security system and to demand action from our law enforcement organs that would be adequate to the level and scale of the new threats," he said.
The school attack was the latest violence thought connected to Chechen separatists who have been battling Russian rule for more than a decade. IT came after a suicide bomb attack outside a Moscow subway station Tuesday that killed eight people, and last week's near-simultaneous crashes of two Russian jetliners after what officials believe were explosions on board.
An unidentified intelligence official was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying the school assault was financed by Abu Omar As-Seyf, an Arab who allegedly represents al-Qaida in Chechnya, and masterminded by Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev.
With some families gathering for wakes for the dead, some were vowing vengeance in North Ossetia, a Russian Orthodox Christian region in the mainly Muslim North Caucasus.
"Fathers will bury their children, and after 40 days (the Orthodox mourning period) ... they will take up weapons and seek revenge," said Alan Kargiyev, a 20-year-old university student in Vladikavkaz.